Ted Nolan. (AP File/Mary Altaffer)
Ted Nolan is up to his old tricks, maximizing what talent there is on the Islanders roster much like he did nine years ago with the blue-collar Buffalo Sabres.
"His teams are always the same, they just work real hard," Toronto Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice said of his fellow Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native. "He finds a way to get some guys whose names weren't on the top of everybody's lists to play hard and to develop into good players. He does a lot through emotion in getting his players to play at a very high level.
"I'm not surprised where they are," added Maurice. "You take away their start and they're one of the best teams in the NHL."
The Islanders entered Monday night's game against the Leafs with a 9-6-3 record, which is even more impressive considering they started the season with three consecutive losses.
Nolan has pressed the right buttons on his squad and has his team battling for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"Teddy's awesome, he's been nothing but a positive influence on this hockey club," Isles defenceman Brendan Witt said Monday after the pre-game skate at Air Canada Centre. "He's very black and white, tells you how it is and how it needs to be done. And he'll let you know if you're not doing it. That's all a guy can ask for, there's no hidden agendas.
"I think it makes a player confident that he knows what he has to do out there to help make the team succeed."
Rugged winger Chris Simon got a taste of that when he played for Nolan on the OHL's Soo Greyhounds in 1992. Once Nolan became Isles head coach last June, Simon knew where he was headed as an unrestricted free agent.
"I've known him for a long time and it was an easy decision to sign with the Islanders," said Simon, like Nolan a proud Ojibwa native. "I've been real happy with my decision to come here."
Said Witt: "The reason I really came here was because of Teddy. I played with Chris in Washington and I knew how Ted helped Chris out in junior and had nothing but positive things to say about him. I've always wanted to play for him."
Why? Because they all hear stories of how Nolan treats his players.
"The thing that makes him different than a lot of coaches is that he really knows his players," said Simon, from the Northern Ontario town of Wawa. "He's a great people person, he understands everybody is different and he knows to motivate everybody. Some guys need getting yelled at, but some it doesn't work. And he knows the different personalities and what it takes to get the most out of each guy."
It would be easy for Nolan to scream out "I told you so" but that wouldn't be his style. After a bitter departure from Buffalo in 1997, the same year he won the Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year, he was blackballed somewhat by the industry amid rumours of what exactly transpired in his last year behind the Sabres bench.
Nine years later, Nolan would rather look ahead than back.
"Right now it's not about showing up anybody," Nolan said. "It's just about learning as much as I can and there's still a lot of improvement I have to do here. But so far it's been real enjoyable."
Leafs centre Michael Peca played for Nolan in Buffalo and says it's about time.
"I think he's a guy that was wronged in Buffalo," said Peca. "It's been a long time coming for his second chance and I think he's going to make a lot of it."
Like Maurice, Peca isn't shocked Nolan has the Islanders playing above expectations.
"The thing with Teddy is that he establishes and instils confidence in people," said Peca. "He gives everybody an opportunity. If you have a coach that's straight-forward and honest and let's you know where you stand, you're going to have a greater appreciation for that coach.
"One of his greatest strengths is the ability to motivate people. So I'm not surprised at all."
Nolan came back to a different game, the new NHL, with less hooking and obstruction, more power plays and more goals.
"The learning curve hasn't been all that drastic," said Nolan. "You look at tape in the off-season, you look at how power-plays are run now, you look at how the forechecking systems have changed a little bit. But outside of that, the communication with players hasn't changed at all. You still have to communicate with them."
Every player in the Islanders dressing room knows where he stands with Nolan.
"He's a pretty simple guy," said veteran winger Jason Blake. "The only thing that he wants from each guy is the work ethic. You're not going to play unless you come to work every night. He stresses it, believes in it, and enforces it. It's the biggest thing for us."